The study of political theology has experienced something of a resurgence in the last decade or two. The concept of political theology had fallen on hard times after the publication of Carl Schmitt’s book by the same name, not necessarily due to any disagreements with parts of Schmitt’s thesis – indeed, his argument that modern political theory is a secularization of Christian theology and that liberalism is a particularly pernicious gutting of the desire for truth, has been taken up by many commentators. No, it was his conception of sovereignty and his subsequent entanglement with the Nazis that discredited Schmitt and cast the idea of political theology into the shadows.

Granted, theologians continued to think about politics, and political theorists continued to think about theology, but a systematic and intentional attempt to work out a political theology that did justice to a full range of theological concepts and political reality at the same time proved elusive. More recently, however, various attempts have been made to understand the interconnections between theological and political commitments, and the role of theology in shaping public order.

This issue becomes especially interesting if we consider the American context, a place where theology both matters and matters not at all. Stanley Hauerwas has complained that in America the object of theological reflection is America itself – a criticism that has some truth to it, but may not be as big a problem as Hauerwas assumes it is. A lot hinges here on how one sees the theological relationship between creation, redemption, and sanctification. Much can be made of the idolatrous nature of America seeing itself as a “Redeemer nation” – and indeed, this will be a problem if one assumes God’s holiness is communicable. Surely Americans have been susceptible to this temptation. But I’m not so sure that this provides an adequate theological framework for understanding America.

There’s a lot more to be said about this than I can or will say in the space of this essay, but I’m thinking there is more to an American theology than meets the eye, for it involves in some fashion keen attention to the question of how God is present in the world and makes the world holy through His presence.

On this score America hasn’t operated ex nihilo but has worked within and through an impressive tradition of convenantal thinking. This tradition is expertly explored by Glenn Moots’ return to political theology in his Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010). Moots gives a detailed and erudite account of how covenantal theology both shaped political order and gave an account of how human beings could best be simultaneously religious and political.

Moots operates at all three levels of the theological enterprise: descriptive, critical, and apologetic. Even if the concept of covenanting may seem like a narrow part of the theological enterprise, Moots carefully unfolds the full range of its political and ethical implications while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in Biblical religion. With scholarly precision, Moots unfolds the process by which representative thinkers figured out how best to balance the twin problems of the relationship between individual and corporate responsibility with the reality that God is somehow present and active in the historical process.

The bulk of the book is spent looking at the development and permutations of the idea and use of covenanting in a range of Protestant thinkers going back to the earliest days of the Reformation. Particularly important is the detailed treatment Moots gives to Heinrich Bullinger, a near-contemporary of Calvin’s whose fame isn’t as extensive but whose theology and influence do not suffer by comparison. The resurrecting of interest in Bullinger is one of the chief virtues of Moots’ book. The importance of Bullinger in this context relates to the use of covenants in seeing church and state working together in terms of the salus populi, and in providing legitimacy to secular rule.

Moots handles the conflict between Calvin and Bullinger with a genuinely deft theological touch. Rather than simply concentrating on political outcomes or disagreements, Moots ventures into the thickets of theological controversy and demonstrates how contrasting ideas of church state relations emerged not as ad hoc arrangements between secular and ecclesiastical authorities, but rather were grounded in theological beliefs themselves, particularly those involving the problem of predestination and the separation of the wheat from the tares. Moots makes, therefore, another significant contribution to the growing body of literature that sees modern political theory not simply as a rejection of Christian theology, but as emerging from within it. Any reader will walk away from the book impressed with Moots’ theological breadth and grasp.

By carefully unraveling the various threads and types of covenanting, Moots shows how theology shaped relationships between civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the crucial period between 1500 and 1700. Significant in this regard was the development of the idea of a “covenant of works” which would be binding on all persons regardless of their state of ecclesiastical fellowship (the covenant of grace). “Just as these two covenants worked together in the economy of salvation, so the civil and ecclesiastical could work together in the polity.” (80) This, coupled with a deeper understanding of the role of conscience in the process of redemption, allowed for a greater understanding of how to balance the public and private elements of religious belief and its foundational role in creating public order.

Moots moves his way through the turmoils of the English Civil War and the Scottish Reformation and shows how the theological controversies led to the development of the idea of “National Covenanting” – connecting the covenant to a particular regime or people. His treatment of the conflict between the Presbyterians and the Independents is particularly valuable in this regard, showing how the latter were more likely to end in millenarian apocalypticism. If indeed American exceptionalism might involve a certain Messianic impulse, Moots draws our attention to the fact that the best response to that is not a de-theologizing of our politics, but a re-theologizing that offers alternate understandings of the Church, sin, and grace.

Any examination of early America at least until the Second Great Awakening cannot but be impressed with the prevalence of covenantal thinking, even where it went under severe scrutiny, such as in the case of Roger Williams. A close look at early American documents show how ecclesiastical and civil authorities, whatever the particulars of their arrangements, worked hand in hand in the effort to create “Godly citizens.” Indeed, when coupled with the emphasis on conscience, this theology became essential in developing the idea of religious freedom that helped foment revolution, (114) and ultimately became the basis for a well-developed concept of ordered liberty.

“It was under the leadership of Reformed Protestants that some of the best innovations of modern politics took root. This includes the separation of church and state…moral condemnation of tyranny as abuse of popular trust, and the accompanying doctrine of resistance.” (133)

This leadership concerned itself with maintaining the purity of the church while being attendant to the increasingly complicated facts of modern political life. This tension proved to be quite overwhelming and led to the dissolution of covenantal thinking, for “Even the great piety of Americans could not hold save the covenant.” (135)

For those of us who still hold out hope for America – despite its excesses, its avaricious appetites, its contaminated public square – who think that it, if it can draw on the best of itself, can still be a hope for mankind, Moots’ book is a good reminder that America can achieve its promise not by accepting bad theology, or by dispensing with theology altogether, but by reimagining in this time of crisis exactly what its political theology ought to look like. Our great leaders in the past have done this, and it now rests on our generation to do the same.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Who are these Reformed Protestants who brought us the separation of church and state? Not Calvin or Knox, Beza or Bradford. The Dutch Republic’s Erastianism didn’t separate the two. In how broad a sense do you mean “Reformed?”

  2. That block quote about the Protestants and the “best innovations of modern politics” certainly shows what kind of historical narrative Moots is working with: all those benighted medieval tyrant-loving papists never could tell the difference between a king and a bishop and couldn’t think for themselves. It’s a highly questionable narrative, to say the least.

  3. Scotland and Geneva subordinated the State to the Church. The Dutch state aimed at the reverse and succeeded quite nicely, though the House of Orange would occasionally throw the Calvinist hardliners a bone. I know that “Reformed” is a broader term than “Calvinist,” and could include not only Bullinger but also Grotius and Bayle. I don’t think the point of either book or review is the general benightedness of popish idolators like us but rather that Reformed theology was formative to American political thought and how so.

    • No, the point of the review certainly was not to attack Catholics. And I certainly agree that Reformed theology has influenced American political thought. What I meant by my comment, though, was that Moots might run into the danger of uncritically accepting the Reformers’ own narrative about themselves.

  4. A pretty good discussion series concerning these issues in Reformed thinking can be found here. Though a Reformed Christian, I also am skeptical about the historical narrative implied here and the extent to which the “separation of church and state” can be called Reformed, though to be sure the modern concept arose from a Protestant arc of theological development driven by many of their descendants.

  5. A good and honest way to know “what kind of historical narrative Moots is working with” or if Moots ran headlong into “the danger of uncritically accepting the Reformers’ own narrative about themselves” would be to read the book.

    This would be an improvement over not reading the book but still taking the LIBERTY to quickly presume that the author has a prejudiced reading of history (or others in the Church) based upon an excerpted line in a review.

    Speaking of PLACE, would you charge an author with negligence or a lack of charity if he was sitting next to you?

  6. Let me jump into the fray here. Perhaps I didn’t do justice to Moots’ book, and for that I apologize to the author. It is, as I said, a remarkably interesting and erudite book. It also locates a lot of so-called “modern” developments within the Christian theological tradition in general. By no means is Moots dismissive of Catholic Christianity.

    But neither is it his point of focus. The two main things to keep in mind is that he is exploring Anglo theology from 1500-1700 (which means its going to be largely Protestant), and he is particularly in the problem of covenant theology, and it seems to me undeniable this is a bigger deal in Protestant theology than it is in Catholic. So the commenters above, I think, are uncharitably getting on Moots’ case for not doing stuff he never said he was going to do. It is difficult enough to unravel the complexity of that period in that place. This is not to say Moots couldn’t do it, only that he didn’t in this particular instance.

    But his particularity is additionally justifiable for this reason: it is manifestly the case that political ordering undergoes some important shifts in the Anglo-American world in that time frame. We enter with the divine right of kings and exit with popular sovereignty. We enter with monarchy and exit with democracy. We enter with close affiliations between ecclesiastical and political power, and emerge with a greater separation. One of the great merit of Moots’ book is that he alters the standard narrative from one where those changes occurred because religion vacated its place after exhausting itself in religious warfare to one that understands the changes as a result of intentional theological deliberation. And it seems to me largely undeniable that Catholic theological thinking enters something of a fallow period in the immediate pre-Tridentine and post-Tridentine world while Protestant theology was remarkably complex and robust. As I recall, this was Newman’s view as well.

    In short, what “prejudices” Moots’ reading is the subject matter (the Anglo-American world from 1500-1700), and for the life of me I can’t see why that should be a subject of controversy, nor can I see why that’s cause to accuse Moots’ of not understanding (or worse, being utterly ignorant of) Medieval theology.

  7. […] Jeffrey Polet over at Front Porch Republic reviews a book I clearly need to read — Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology by Glenn Moots. I won’t comment much, since I’ve not read the book (I thought our seminary library might have it, but alas, since it’s clearly not by a Frankfurt-school inspired wanna-be liberation theologian, they don’t). But I do have something to say about covenantal theology. […]

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